Continuing with the theme from SVS 006 of ordinary people's relationships being a wonderful treat in an otherwise unordinary setting, let us travel back to the halcyon days of 1990s family television programming that we both love forever and are now almost uniformly too embarrassed by to admit we like in public.
Friday night family sitcom lineup spent over a decade codifying the family-friendly, (usually healthy) aesop-heavy, generally-harmless, sometimes groan-inducing style of programming that defined 1990s domestic comedy.
There were a lot of them, and with a few exceptions that explicitly embraced the supernatural (hello, Sabrina
and Teen Angel
), they all purported to be aggressively
rooted in the real world. (Admittedly, Family Matters
got overtaken by Steve Urkel's descent into zany super-science, but if you cut that out the show was really about the relationships between Steve and various members of the Winslow family.)
The problem emerged within the first few episodes of all these shows, though--if not the pilot episode itself. Watching aggressively normal people do aggressively normal stuff is aggressively boring
. And these shows needed to be funny and entertaining enough to keep people coming back for enough years to wrack up sufficient episodes for lucrative first-run syndication deals. So invariably you took your aggressively normal people, wrapped them in Plot Armor and Made of Iron tropes usually reserved for shonen and shojo anime protagonists, and subjected them to the sort of bizarre, reality-is-unrealistic comedies of errors and random, I-can't-believe-that-didn't-kill-you coincidences and accidents that might happen to one of us in the real world maybe once in our entire lives.
And you did that weekly, and we loved to watch it.
Looking at the situation from a meta perspective years later, one can only conclude the people in all these shows were subject to living on an earth that, while appearing to be Pleasantville, was actually the playground of some mad god who was treating them like his own personal game of The Sims and trying to see how far he could push them before they broke. That some of them (like Eric Matthews on Boy Meets World
) descended into a functional sort of actual insanity indicates that they figured out what was going on and went a bit mad from the revelation.
Then there was the actually horrifying stuff, like one of Frank Lambert's sons actually disappearing
from Step by Step
and no-one mentioning him or acknowledging he existed ever again, or the habit of babies to age up to approximately age six in less than a single calendar year. Likely because the mad Sims-playing god adjusted the age slider because infants make somewhat useless toys.
But I seriously digress.
The point being, for all their supposed normality, these shows were deeply and fundamentally bizarre. Re-watching them post-puberty, with an awareness of how romance is supposed to work, leads me to think that, just like in Xena
, there is value in celebrating the normality of healthy, loving relationships in these sorts of universes. It's telling that on a lot of the TGIF shows, the most interesting romantic relationships belonged to the stable, happily married parent-couples that stood a few degrees removed from the zany hellscape that so infected their children's romantic entanglements. While JT Lambert idiotically tried to use his baby sister to pretend to be a single father to pick up chicks in a mall (a number of boys tried this on various shows), Frank and Carol Lambert sat at home and held hands and hugged while looking at their finances and realizing they can actually barely afford their newest kid, Lily. Cory Matthews and Topanga Lawrence take a break from their neurotic college romance, and Eric Matthews shook off his crazy, when they are pulled back into the orbit of Cory and Eric's parents Alan and Amy, whose new baby is premature and ill and may not make it out of the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital.
So, watching the kids' romantic arcs, the most interesting thing to me is seeing them grow and mature and gradually move out of the zaniness and towards the normality and stability of their parents' relationships. Some of them are better at this than others, and some never quite get there. even by the time of their series finale, and viewers are left holding the bag and cringing and thinking, "well, they're better off than when they started."
And some of them don't just get there but cross the finish line on a jetpack, and when these are the ones you wrote off as gag couples, that's even sweeter.
Dana Foster and Rich Halke are probably at the top of the stack in terms of TGIF
teen-couples. It starts off fairly cliched: Dana is a highly motivated, intelligent, career- and goal-driven nerd (though she would never be called that because she was also beautiful and it would be another 15 to 20 years before TV really started to admit that beautiful nerds were a thing that existed) who was socially conscious and politically active and had no patience for those she viewed as beneath her (this was in fact her biggest character flaw at the start: it made her hard to watch because she came off as genuinely hurtful more than once). Watching her grow out of that last thing while still maintaining everything that made her great was a real joy. (Now that I think about it, Dana's character arc is not that dissimilar from Daria Morgendorffer's.)
Rich started out as one of JT's friends, which meant he was very much like JT: a shallow, girl-crazy, insensitive jock who came across as a complete idiot, but good-hearted and loyal and even brave when it actually counted. Though while JT got no justification for his constant academic failure and lack of common sense until the show runners tried a saving throw and diagnosed him with dyslexia (which was sadly played for laughs and never really explored beyond a few lines of dialogue), Rich was quite clearly shown to be lazy
. His idea of tutoring is to hire someone to write a paper for him while he played basketball, and he was even self-aware enough to request that the papers not be too good so as not to draw attention.
And he's apparently been getting away with this for so long that he doesn't think a thing about it when he accidentally hires Dana to be his tutor, and tries to order a paper from her. Needless to say, that lasts about 30 seconds (which is 25 seconds longer than I thought it would) before she makes him do the work himself (or tries to), and one thing leads to another and in one moment of what she quite accurately and hilariously calls "demented passion," they're making out in the kitchen.
And on most shows that would be the end of it. Maybe you'd get one disastrous joke date (with a 50 percent chance of ending in a food-fight), but that would be the end of the gag and neither character would really change, but instead go on comfortable and secure in the knowledge that they are correct and "demented passion" or not, the other character is wrong and lame and Status Quo is God and no one is allowed to grow up.
That didn't happen, this time. Dana tried; she had terrible luck with dating up till that point because most guys were intimidated by/jealous of her intelligence and independence and so she was primed to assume the worst about everyone interested in her--which is disturbingly realistic for young women in Dana's position. But Rich wasn't willing to let it go and we got to see a new side of him: he was still an academic slacker and not the sharpest tool in the shed, but when he decided to be honest with her it turned out there was a whole actual person underneath all the 1990s dudebro cliches he was wrapped in, and he managed to get her to keep going out with him in a respectful, yet hilarious way. She was never a nerd he was taking pity on or something he won or brought down to his level. She was Dana and he was thrilled and honored that she wanted to share herself with him; it's implied that one of the reasons he was initially dismissive and combative of her was that he was convinced she was the sort of person who was completely beyond him, so he got defensive from the beginning. And Dana grew at the same time: Rich was the kind of person she started the series thinking was much beneath her boot soles, and a good part of her early courtship is admitting to herself that she has been overly-judgmental and that there is actually someone underneath the moron jock facade that she is deeply attracted to.
It's a horrible thing in real life and writing when a person tries to remake themselves and sacrifice their core values to appease a romantic partner, and most sitcom gag couples end when they try to do this, with the obvious aesop. The Step by Step writers acknowledge and deliberately avert this. Both Rich and Dana have characteristics and habits the one one doesn't care for, but the solution is not to excise those bits out, but to engage in realistic self-improvement that's not about changing your identity, but about how you engage with the people you care about. Dana, in essence, has to learn that real people are complicated
, and in a relationship you have to take all of them. You can't just cherry-pick the parts you like. Rich has to learn how to stop using his slacker persona as a shield from forming the sort of deep and genuine bonds real romantic relationships require (because that shield is keeping Dana out), without sacrificing the fun-loving, joyful part of his personality. In other words, he has to learn balance
if he wants this relationship to work.
And they both acknowledge these things, and work on them together, and in the middle of the laugh tracks and everything-but-Godzilla-showing-up insanity, they succeed. In fact, aside from Frank and Carol, by series' end they have the most developed, stable, healthy and realistic relationship of all the "child" characters, and have personally undergone some of the most comprehensive growth arcs.
This was most striking as a viewer upon seeing the thing that almost broke them up. It wasn't some zany mistaken-for-cheating plot (though they went through one of those, but it was resolved in 5 minutes), or a harrowing set of circumstances like one of their parents moving several states away and physically separating them, or any of the normal Pleasantville-Hellscape cliches generally reserved for a show's "kid couples." They were college age at that point, or nearly so, and Dana became so overwhelmed by the idea of planning for the future in the midst of their presently dim financial prospects and career uncertainties and other such things that, well, are quite familiar concerns to almost every real world adult couple everywhere.
And Rich, instead of freaking out and doing something that blows it like he would've before they first started dating and he was consumed with flippant laziness and shallow inability to commit, fully understands where she's coming from and why she's afraid (because he's not exactly not worrying about this stuff either). But he'll never be a genius like Dana and knows he doesn't have the words in him to get his message through to her.
So he thinks hard about it, takes out his heart and tacks it on his sleeve, and risks humiliating himself in a way he never would have dared upon his introduction. He invokes TGIF's most adorkable, heartwarming music number ever (according to me, tenured Professor of Dorkdom at I Can't Believe You're Writing So Many Words About This University), and proceeds to get her back with a hand held karaoke machine and the power of Sonny and Cher, who had the right words decades ago. In public, with dozens if not hundreds of witnesses.
And it works, because what he's really saying is "yes, there are uncertainties, and yes, they are frightening, but it doesn't matter because I would be facing them with you, and you would be facing them with me, and we'd figure it out and make it work because that's what love gives you the strength to do."
It's presented with the usual goofy, nearly-impossible-to-believe-that-worked circumstances common to most TGIF
kids' romantic scenes, but when you stop and think about it you realize it only works and they only stay together because of how much both of them have grown and are able to think and function in a relationship like young adults, not kids. Rich and Dana look and function most like Frank and Carol in this moment.
I think one of the things I like best about it is all the initially annoyed/confused adult couples in the room getting into it and starting to dance as he sings. It's tacit approval.
And it's still cheesy and goofy and still kind of beautiful just for that.
The actual song is about 2 minutes long. Stick around for the after credits scene where they cosplay as Sonny and Cher. It's hilarious and adorable, but doesn't have the magic of the in-character performance.